The Fram Strait is located between Greenland and Svalbard at about 79—80° N. About 500 km wide, it separates the Arctic Ocean to the north from the Greenland Sea to the south. With a sill depth of about 2200 m, it is the only deep passage between the Mediterranean Arctic Ocean and its surrounding oceans, thereby providing the most important exchange in terms of volume and energy. A major fraction of Arctic sea ice—about 3000 km3 per year—is advected into the North Atlantic through this passage.
The transport of surface water masses between the North Atlantic and the Arctic occurs in two major currents. The ice-free West Spitsbergen Current (WSC) in eastern Fram Strait has its roots in the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Current and introduces warm (4°C) saline (salinity about 35 psu) Atlantic water far north into the Arctic, where it submerges north of Svalbard below the cold (-1.8°C) but less saline (below 33 psu) Polar Water. A large fraction of the WSC is deflected to the west and contributes to the southward-flowing Return Atlantic Current. The heat transported within the WSC causes a relatively mild climate on the west coast on Svalbard, which is ice-free nearly year-round. On the west flank of the Fram Strait, conditions are extremely different. Cold polar water with sea ice is transported south with the East Greenland Current (EGC) with current speeds highest close to the surface (about 20 cm s-1). The Polar Front, the borderline between the EGC and the WSC, is marked by strong horizontal and vertical gradients in water temperature, salinity, current speeds and directions, as well as sea ice concentrations.
The fluxes of sea water and sea ice through Fram Strait influence the heat and freshwater budget of the Arctic Ocean and North Atlantic. At 80° N, about 4-6 Sv (1 Sverdrup = 106 m3 s-i) are transported out of the Arctic within the EGC, while the northward transport by the WSC accounts for about 1-3 Sv. Changes in the current strengths are of crucial importance in understanding the annual, interannual, and decadal variability of the climate in the Northern Hemisphere and the Earth, as they partially control the thermohaline circulation of the world's ocean. Ongoing research projects in this area include measurements from satellites, ships, and moored instrumentation to determine, for example, the thickness of sea ice or current speeds in Fram Strait.
Apart from water masses, the Polar Front also separates ecosystems, which are dominated by Arctic and Atlantic species according to the hydrographical regime. Biological productivity on the western Arctic side of Fram Strait is generally lower than on the eastern Atlantic side because of the sea ice cover. An exception is the Northeast Water Polynya on the Greenlandic shelf. Local currents and wind fields open the ice pack each year leading to elevated phytoplankton productivity, which in turn enhances pelagic and benthic life. Highest concentrations of plankton as well as birds and marine mammals are found in the marginal ice zone at the Polar Front, induced by locally enhanced phyto-plankton growth from spring to autumn.
See also Arctic Ocean; Greenland Sea; North Atlantic Drift; Thermohaline Circulation
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